They closely resemble the diffuse New Testament church in the way they have survived, even thrived, in the vacillating political climate.

One of the most exciting developments in twentieth-century church history is taking place today in China. According to reports from firsthand observers, there is a movement today that is seeing Christians increasing by the thousands in house churches.

Although it is impossible to obtain precise statistics for China as a whole, staff and friends of the China Church Research Center traveling in recent months in 11 provinces have provided reliable information about this church-growth explosion. The research center estimates that there are between 25 and 50 million believers in house churches.

Take Henan Province, for example, which has 111 counties. Fifteen of these have an average of 100,000 believers each. One county had only 4,000 believers in 1948; now it has 160,000. There are a thousand meeting points scattered over 20 communes. Henan is a good example since missionaries had made little progress there before the Communists took over.

Many Western observers think house churches are a recent phenomenon in China, brought about by government changes in 1976. Actually, the roots of the current revival go much deeper. The movement is in fact an extension of an independent church movement that began in 1911 and a similar indigenous movement that grew out of the persecutions of 1922–7. These churches were free of foreign missionary control. Even before the Communist revolution in 1949, hundreds of thousands of Chinese Christians were associated with several thousand house meetings.

Several indigenous church movements grew during the 1920s. The True Jesus Church was organized in 1917 and began to spread in various provinces. By 1949 this charismatic movement had district associations in 17 provinces, with 525 preachers, 1,260 churches and meeting places, and 125,000 members.

In 1926 the Jesus Family was organized in Shandong. This group held common property and was organized as “families.” The members worked together to produce their own food and sell their produce or goods. They also conducted migration evangelism by going to west China in the 1930s and 1940s. In 1949 there were 400 families in 200 countries.

Watchman Nee’s group, the “Little Flock,” was organized in Shanghai in 1928 and spread quickly to various parts of China as well as to Taiwan. Hong Kong, and overseas.

Practically all of these independent and indigenous churches began from small prayer meetings that developed into regular worship services. They started with fellowship, prayer, and Bible study. Next came evangelistic work, and then some type of organization.

Article continues below

Christians were allowed to carry on their religious activities during the first few years of Communist control, but the government began to regulate them through the development of the Three-Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM). Practically all foreign missionaries were driven out of China by 1952, and by 1954, all Christian institutions—such as hospitals and schools—were taken over by the government. Most pastors were removed from their congregations, and except for Sunday services in the TSPM churches, normal church activities ceased.

From 1954 to 1958, under the leadership of the TSPM, congregations renounced their former ties with foreign missions. Accusation meetings against Chinese believers and pastors were also conducted, including such men as Wang Mingdao and Watchman Nee, who refused to join the TSPM. Many were arrested for being “unpatriotic,” and were not released until the period of 1978–80.

In the name of union, the TSPM successfully reduced the number of churches to a bare minimum. In 1958, reportedly only 15 out of 200 churches in Shanghai still functioned; only 4 of 66 churches still operated in Beijing (Peking). In most other cities, only one or two churches remained open for public worship.

One report describes how the many Christian groups in one city were combined:

“There shall be unified worship for the city of Taiyuan and a ministerial staff of three or four. All real and moveable church property and all church funds shall be turned over to the Three-Self Patriotic committee. The administration of the church shall be in the hands of the Three-Self Patriotic committee. The hymns used in worship shall be unified and a committee shall choose and edit the hymns for use. All books used in the interpretation of the Bible shall be examined and judged, and those containing poisonous thoughts shall be rejected. Only teaching favoring union and socialism shall be used. There shall be no more preaching about the Last Day or about the vanity of the world. Belief and unbelief shall not be made an issue in determining marriage question” (from documents of the TSPM).

By 1958, aside from a few official TSPM churches, Protestant Christianity had become a lay phenomenon without pastors, organizations, buildings, or outside financial assistance. Furthermore, Christians lived in a state of constant fear of being questioned, watched, and imprisoned. Many “rice Christians” renounced their faith, and weak Christians fell.

Article continues below

But the faithful upheld one another through mutual encouragement. They united in informal clandestine prayer and fellowship meetings. For independent and indigenous groups, this transition was very natural. For others, however, who were accustomed to institutional church life, it was a traumatic time. Still, they gradually adapted themselves to the new form of house Christianity. One believer wrote in a letter: “We have received an order that not more than five can meet together. Thank God, Jesus said, ‘Where two or three are gathered together in my name there am I in the midst,’ and two plus three equals five; we will still continue our little prayer group.”

Later, even small group meetings were illegal. Many believers caught attending house church meetings were arrested and sent to labor camp. Often they were betrayed by other Christians.

It was also in 1958 that Mao Zedong launched the Great Leap Forward, which was marked by a radical communization of agriculture. Villages were organized into communes, production battalions, and brigades. Rural church activities, which until then had enjoyed more freedom than their urban counterparts, were seriously disrupted.

Production schedules no longer permitted Christians to meet for Sunday services, and believers had to organize their meeting times according to their work hours. Village life became more and more politicized under the control of cadres, many of whom were sent to the countryside from the cities. Also, pastors in the cities in 1958 were grouped together into production units, and they continued to do labor until their recent rehabilitation.

From 1960 to 1962 China underwent a period of confusion and difficulty. The Greap Leap Forward proved to be a fiasco, and famine and drought were widespread. Relations with Russia deteriorated, and the Soviets withdrew their contracts and technical personnel. Under such circumstances, the government’s apparatus of control weakened, and controlling religious activities became a low priority. As a consequence, Christians in both cities and countryside enjoyed a period of relative freedom. In south Fujian, Christians even held public tent revival meetings during traditional festivals. House churches experienced the first season of growth during 1960–2.

From 1963 to 1966, however, the government began to conduct a Socialist Education Movement to reshape the people’s thinking. A part of this movement was the Atheist Education Campaign, which tried to persuade people to renounce religion and superstitious beliefs. The campaign brought a tightening of control, suppressing religious activities not sanctioned by the government. Meanwhile, the government’s religious policy began to harden, forcing house church activities to remain quiet.

Article continues below

The Cultural Revolution broke out in 1966, and the entire country was in chaos. Religion was fiercely attacked. Christians from house churches and the TSPM alike were severely persecuted. Stories of harsh abuse are just beginning to surface: Christians in Xiamen were forced to kneel before a pile of burning Bibles; a former Bible woman was beaten to death inside a church in Beijing; some of the faithful were forced at gunpoint to recant then-faith.

Practically all Bibles and Christian literature were either confiscated or destroyed. Anyone who had past connections with missionaries or mission schools, or with overseas relatives, was attacked.

Although the violence of the Cultural Revolution had died down by 1969, the years that followed under the Gang of Four were marked by continued suppression of believers, and this continued until late 1978. The situation improved following Sino-American normalization in January 1979.

During the 10 years of hardship and suffering, the house churches were firmly established and prepared for massive expansion after 1979. Some continued to meet secretly in spite of the great suffering of many Christians, As one example, a Christian medical student whose grandmother had hidden her Bible in a flowerpot found that his professor, with whom he was staying, was a Christian. Each week the family met behind closed doors and windows to study the Scripture and pray together.

The sustained pressure made Christians reexamine their faith. It deepened the faith of many, while others who were weak in faith succumbed to physical or psychological pressure. Some even denied Christ. But the spiritually victorious ones became even bolder and more convinced of their faith. They continued to meet clandestinely, and developed more effective means of doing evangelistic work among friends and relatives.

When the worst years of the Cultural Revolution were past, the little groups in homes began to grow. Believers got up at midnight to have Bible study and break bread together. Those meetings were rooted in families and only very close friends could join them. By about 1971, some restrictions had been relaxed and in one city quite large groups were able to meet without government objection. That proved temporary, however; authorities cracked down, arrested the leaders, and the Christians were scattered. Still, instead of giving up, they continued to meet in small groups in the countryside. From time to time those meetings were also interrupted and Christians sent to camps for reeducation through labor.

Article continues below

On one occasion, after a long and fervent meeting, cadres who had infiltrated the group stood up and confessed that they had been sent to make arrests. But what they had heard had so impressed them that they wanted to follow Christ themselves. Many stories have been told of the ways the Lord protected his people.

After Mao’s death in September 1976 and the arrest of the Gang of Four the following month, China changed significantly. These were years of uncertainty. The antireligious policy of the Gang of Four was not yet fully removed, and the more lenient pre-1966 policy was still to be restored. Oppression and toleration both operated, depending on the whim of the local cadres. But the confusion provided breathing space, enabling house churches to grow and even to experience revivals.

After Deng Xiaoping regained control in December 1978, China started on the road toward a liberal religious policy. The old policy of “freedom of religious belief” was restored, thereby removing from believers their state of guilt. House churches began to surface, first in the southern coastal regions, and later in interior China.

In March 1979, the party rehabilitated its United Front Work Department and restored the Religious Affairs Bureau. Religious organizations, such as TSPM, were restored by the summer of 1979, and the reappearance of the TSPM marked a new stage for house church development. On the one hand, public TSPM churches were opened in the cities, and it was further evidence of the government’s toleration of religion in Chinese society. On the other hand, it meant restoration of the control apparatus.

The years 1976–8 thus may be called years of transition for house churches: from a clandestine existence to one of semipublic expansion. It was also a transition from the old policy of oppression to a one of toleration. Since then, both open churches and house churches have grown rapidly.

TSPM officials claim over 200 open churches. House churches meanwhile have grown to include some 25 to 50 million believers. If there are 25 persons at each meeting point, that means there must be one to two million house churches.

Article continues below

There are the three main types of house church constituents today. During 1955–66, the house congregations were made up of people who refused to join the TSPM or worship in TSPM churches. From 1966 to 1976, however, they included pastors and believers who had attended TSPM churches. In addition, a new generation of believers who grew up during the Cultural Revolution has now joined the house churches, particularly in rural areas.

After the restoration of the TSPM in mid-1979, tension began to develop between it and the house churches. Leaders of house churches did not know whether the TSPM would begin to control them as it had during the 1950s and 1960s, or whether the government’s policy of toleration would provide adequate protection. Aware of this tension, the TSPM was anxious to recruit all Christians to the cause of the Four Modernizations. In October 1980, the TSPM issued a resolution in which the legality of house churches was recognized. This assurance was well received by house churches and served as a stimulus to further expansion in 1980 and 1981.

Since last summer, however, house churches have been restricted by the United Front Work Department, the Religious Affairs Bureau, and the TSPM. There are reports that the house churches have been told not to make independent contacts with believers and Christian groups from outside China, or to accept Bibles from them. They have also been told not to propagate the gospel to anyone under 18, and not to conduct faith healing. Also, believers are told to attend TSPM churches where they exist, rather than house churches.

The control has been effective in some cities, but in most rural situations, especially in distant or mountainous regions, house churches still enjoy their local autonomy. The TSPM simply cannot catch up with the rapid growth of the house churches.

It appears that the expansion of the house church movement has just begun. As long as China maintains her open-door policy for the sake of the Four Modernizations, Christian contacts will also remain open and the policy of limited toleration will have to be maintained. The house church has become a people’s movement, and an indigenous phenomenon, and it is therefore unlikely that any attempts at administrative control will be effective. On the contrary, the house church movement is beginning to transform the entire nation.

Jonathan Chao is director of the Chinese Church Research Center in Hong Kong.

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.